Grey and Pleasant Land? An Interdisciplinary Exploration of the Connectivity of Older People in Rural Civic Society

The CCRI worked with the University of Plymouth (lead partner), Bournemouth University, University of the West of England, Cardiff University and Swansea University to investigate how older people living in rural South West England and Wales interact with their local community, and what social and economic issues are important to them.

The three-year study was one of a number funded under the ‘New Dynamics of Ageing’ programme. This seven-year research initiative, the largest research programme on ageing to date in the UK, is a unique collaboration between five UK Research Councils – ESRC, EPSRC, BBSRC, MRC and AHRC – supporting scientists from across the disciplines to work together on research which will benefit the quality of life of older people.

The project investigated the types and extent of older people’s involvement (‘connectivity’) in rural community life and the role that this plays in facilitating civic engagement in later life. A survey of 900 persons aged 60 and over conducted in six rural study locations in southwest England and Wales was used in conjunction with qualitative and arts-based methods to address research questions about how and in what ways older people are connected to rural civic society across diverse rural settings and within subgroups of older people. The rural South West was specifically chosen as a location for several of the Grey and Pleasant Land project study sites due to its position at the forefront of the demographic ‘age wave’. The South West has the most ageing population of all regions in England, which is growing faster than the overall UK population, and has the highest life expectancy of all regions. Rural Wales is experiencing similar demographic trends.

The findings of the research showed that active community participation was significantly higher among married persons, the ‘young-old’, and those considering themselves healthy; the strongest influences on being active were former occupational status and levels of qualification. Among those not undertaking active participation, lack of interest was the most prevalent reason. Involvement in leisure activities was a frequent means of creating or strengthening social bonds within rural communities. The majority surveyed did not regard transport as a barrier to community participation, however increased age and carlessness made transport problematic. For older members of minority groups prejudice can make integration into mainstream rural community life challenging. Despite material poverty, low income respondents expressed high levels of satisfaction and connection in rural communities though evidence suggests some social inclusion is diminishing with public sector cuts to services. This research identified key roles in community life fulfilled by older adults in many rural locations, volunteering in activities like organising and running events and promoting community engagement, and highlighted barriers to inclusion.

The Final Report, plus links to papers and presentations arising from the project, can be accessed on the ESRC website.

Final Report reference:

Hennessy, Catherine et al. Grey and Pleasant Land? An Interdisciplinary Exploration of the Connectivity of Older People in Rural Civic Society: ESRC End of Award Report, RES-353-25-0011. Swindon: ESRC


The project findings have attracted attention from academics across a range of disciplines and produced impact in the following areas:

  • In rural studies, gerontology, gender studies, and social policy, our research has produced new knowledge about levels, determinants and impact on community participation of social capital among older rural residents; the potential of later life leisure activities as a means for generating social capital in rural communities; the multidimensional nature of rural elders’ attachment to place; the cultural denial of poverty and associated coping strategies among older people in low income rural households and the discrimination and barriers to social inclusion experienced by some older members of minority groups in rural communities. -In transport studies and psychology, our research has developed a new conceptual approach to understanding the mobility of older people and contributed novel empirical evidence around the mobility of older rural citizens, particularly for social connectivity.
  • In the arts, humanities and performative social science, our research has demonstrated the value of arts-based research approaches for illuminating connections between, place, space, and ageing identity, and the impact of these methods on public engagement with research findings.
  • In interdisciplinary studies, informatics and gerontology, our research has created new knowledge about methods for academic collaboration across disciplines; barriers and facilitators of interaction of academics with new forms of communication technology; preferences among older people for forms of online communication around issues of shared interest; and the potential of the Internet for connecting geographically dispersed stakeholders around ageing research issues.